She slid her lean legs into the driver’s seat of her compact, egg-shell white i20 and smoothly settled in behind the steering wheel. She checked her perfectly outlined lips, filled in with demure red liquid lipstick and ran a hand down her freshly blow-dried hair. Turning on the AC, she slowly began to back out of her parking space in the secreted-away, edging-towards swanky apartment building in Gurgaon.
As she pulled onto the main toll road leading away from Gurgaon to the more traditionally upmarket South Delhi area, she checked her WhatsApp messages at the first traffic light and noted that her date for the evening, Karan Singh, had already texted her saying he was on his way and would reach the cafe in another ten minutes.
Giving him points for letting her know his location and checking in with her first, she told her anxiety that he was scoring high on her personal date-o-meter. This ran true to form as he had asked her out in a courteous manner, replied to her texts with satisfying rapidity and a certain amount of gentle flirtation had been swapped back and forth already. This ticked off another big box on her mental list – the willingness to turn up when he said he would.
She had started speaking to him on an exclusive dating app called Floh, which offered to match singles in the city who were actively engaged in gainful employment, a quality that wasn’t as common as you’d think. She had chosen the place they would meet and made sure it was at a location she knew intimately. Humming along to the music that blared out of her speakers, she followed the razor-straight road until she spotted the glittery hub of her favourite market – Khan Market, in the distance.
She had fallen in love with Khan Market the day her school friends had taken her there to walk along the familiar traffic-choked roads and wander into one of the oldest bookstores in New Delhi. She had been led by the hand inside the city’s unequivocally loved cafe – The Big Chill –where she had enthusiastically gorged on fluffy white ravioli and a satisfyingly thick slice of Banoffee pie.
She replied to Karan with a simple, “I’m reaching in five. See you soon :)” and pulled into the parking lot. She stepped out of her car, draped her sling bag over her shoulders and enjoyed the swaying walk on her comfortable heels. She almost glided as she relished these last few moments leading upto a first date – there was so much promise to be gleaned, the edge of a few nerves when she thought about how he could either be a treasure or disappointment or, because this was real life and not a Bollywood movie, simply a regular person with whom she just wouldn’t click. She had met many of her now-friends on dates just like this.
She entered Town House through a flight of narrow, white-washed and artisanally-rough staircase to a terrace that was laced, looped and drawn with acres of fairy lights twinkling under a close sky. She could smell the lemon used to flavour someone’s tequila and hoots of laughter from the small, intimate tables spaced across the roof. Karan was already seated at a table and rose as she approached the table. He wore a casual pair of jeans and a deep navy blue shirt with a playful pattern of flowers on the collar.
“Hi,” he said with easy familiarity, a twinkle in his eyes as he took her hand.
“Hey,” she replied with a smile.
“Did you find the place OK?,” she asked him.
“I did. I’ve never been to Town House before, but I have heard of this place from a lot of our – my – friends. This terrace area is really nice.”
“I know, right?! It’s one of my favourite places in Khan Market. Even though parking here is a bit of a pain, I love walking around the stores here.”
“I know. I stalked you on Instagram,” he said, with a mischievous grin that said ‘I know saying this was risky, but I’m sure you’ll be flattered.’
Taking things in stride, she said, “I would have expected nothing else. I stalked you too. Did you really live in Istanbul for a month and cycle all around Turkey?”
“Yup. I realised that I was 32 and had never taken a solo vacation in my life. Pretty pathetic, right? So I decided to take a real break and burned through my savings. It was honestly quite incredible. I drank buckets of Turkish coffee and gorged on kebabs right off hot skewers.”
“That sounds awesome. Tell me more about it.”
“OK. Remember that you asked for this. I guess being someone who always had everything planned out to a T finally got on my nerves. I travelled during the day and saw beautiful villages built into the sides of hills, mountain paths that overlooked the Mediterranean Sea and never booked a single hotel. Did you know there’s an old practice in Turkish houses of tying a rope around a little basket and lowering it down the window every morning where a local bakery boy would fill it with fresh bread and butter? So sensible!”
“Hahaha wow, what luxury! I have to buy my ‘artisanal’ croissants at the supermarket and far from being freshly baked, if they’re less than three days old, I’ll eat the paper stuffing they come in.”
“Croissants in the morning? Nah, I stick with anda parantha when I’m not roaming around the Turkish countryside.”
Engrossed in the simple pleasure of getting to know each other, they suddenly looked up when a waiter approached them with the bar menu and poured iced water in tall glasses.
“I’m so sorry. What would you like to drink?” Karan asked.
“I think I’ll have a white wine.”
“OK, great. I think I’ll have a Chivas on the rocks with a lot of water. No soda, please and a side of fries. You like fries, don’t you?”
“I do! Thank you.”
“So what made you take off like that and burn through your savings? I don’t think I could have done that. I’m way too anxious and a total control freak.”
“Sure, you can. I think everybody comes to a point in their lives where they tell their brain to shut the hell up and breathe. Live. Just get away.”
“Is that what happened to you?”
“A little bit of that and of course, it had a lot to do with the fact that my marriage had just imploded. I married Suchi when I was 27 and considered myself a fully-grown and mature adult who could do no wrong if I just planned for things thoroughly enough. She was a family friend, we had known each other for years. We dated for a while and then decided it was time to get married. I used to watch all these rom-coms, movies that regurgitated stupid shit like ‘love at first sight’, beating hearts, drama, passion and whatnot and think to myself, my god these people are idiots. That doesn’t happen in real life, does it? And even if something like that did happen, even if I did feel my heart race at the sight of one person I fell in love with years ago in school, it couldn’t mean anything, right? Just hormones and naivety, that’s all. I felt slightly uncomfortable when I didn’t feel all those mushy things for Suchi, but I smoothed it over. Love will come later, I told myself.”
“Did it come later, then?”
“Pressure came later. Lots and lots of it. The pressure to start a family, fertility cycles, sperm count and ovulation days. God, I can feel myself tensing up even at the thought of this. I mean, I like sex, but I remember my ex-wife used to get this look of grim determination in her eyes when she looked at me before we went to bed on some nights, and that’s when I knew she was ovulating. We had sex not because we wanted to, but because we had to. It made me sad and just a little bit horrified. It grated on me after a while, you know. I think there are only so many moments you can spend alive and be without love in your life.”
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“Wow. That’s a lot to take in. I”m so sorry that you went through all that. So what happened after you realised you couldn’t be with her?”
“Pretty standard stuff, really. One evening after work, I came back home and pulled her out of the kitchen. Wait, I’m so sorry. Look at me going on and on about my ex-wife. You don’t want to hear about all that, do you?”
“Oh no, I really do. Please don”t stop now.”
They picked up their drinks, nibbled on a couple of fries and looked into each other’s eyes, and he resumed his story.
“So I pulled her out of the kitchen, led her to the tiny balcony that was attached to our bedroom and poured her a glass of white wine. I remember all this so clearly. I popped a bottle of beer for myself and told her that I needed to speak to her. I said:
‘Suchi, when did having a child become the sole purpose of our lives? We used to sit and drink every other night after work. Now, I barely get to just BE with you. We only ever discuss ovulation cycles and all that shit. Where are you and me? We don’t plan holidays, we plan nursery colour schemes. I can’t take this, Suchi. You seem to have taken for granted the fact that I am as invested in this as you are. And some of that is my own fault. I let you believe it. But here and now, I’m saying I don’t want this. Maybe I’m not ready to have a child. I want to enjoy my life and my friends and be with a wife whose every thought is not related to offspring.’
Completely invested in the story, she asked, “And what did she say to that?”
“She said the words that destroyed our marriage. That I was a selfish asshole who didn’t even have the balls to tell her to her face that I didn’t want kids. She had been killing herself with fasting, going off sugar etc while I only had one job. She said if I couldn’t give her a child, then this marriage was over.”
“Fuck, Karan. That sounds horrible”
“Looking back at it now, I realise that she had a point. I should have been upfront with her from the beginning. It’s just, I didn’t even know I didn’t want kids until it was all but pushed into my face. I think the problem with ‘going with the flow’ is that one fine day, you’ve floated past the point of no return. Anyway, to answer the original question you asked a million years ago, that was why I decided to cycle my way through Turkey.”
She laughed at that, couldn’t help herself.
Trying to defuse the tension, he said, “So that was my sob story. What’s yours?”
“Well, after finishing my undergrad, I went on to join the forensic accounting team at Ernst & Young. They gave us really shitty pay and made us work like dogs for hours on end. I was young and just happy to have gotten a job, so I stayed for a couple of harrowing years. I remember there was like barely a month between the time I joined EY and the end of my undergrad. So in the matter of a month, my life changed so completely that I couldn’t even recognise myself. From rarely attending classes and sitting and gossiping with my friends until the chai grew cold in our hands to slaving over a company-issued laptop in the miserable, overly air-conditioned and sterile office environment was a true come-to-Jesus moment for me. I was in the cab one morning, having had to drag my sleepy ass to the shower and get dressed, forcing myself to eat some breakfast and sitting in the backseat, crammed with a few more of my colleagues and I had this very clear epiphany – my life from now on would consist of work and nothing but work from Monday to Friday until I retired. No summer holidays, no winter breaks – just me and my job, day after day until I can’t do it anymore. I guess every person who enters the workforce has one of these moments. And of course, in true rebellious mode, my thumbing of the nose at that reality was to go out every single night, get piss-faced drunk and snatch hurried holidays whenever I could. I was scared to even spend a moment alone by myself. My mind had already started looking for an escape route. I couldn’t really blame it.”
“So did you manage to escape, then?”
“In a manner of speaking. Because I was spending all my waking hours either at the office or the bar, I started viewing things very differently. I started envying people I had never thought worthy of envy before in my life. My older cousin sisters had toed the family line and each had gotten married at 21 and had already produced two kids apiece. And I actually sat there and was jealous of their lives. Of the certainty that they would come home to the same man every night. They were both housewives, so clearly they had no work pressure. They never had to deal with timesheets or maintain the appearance of being a dedicated corporate slave. They didn’t have bosses and never had to reckon with the reality of being tiny cogs in a massive, slow-marching machine that ate people like me for breakfast.”
“Hahaha. You have such a way with words. Did you really want all that? The antiseptic homely life?”
“I thought I did. I began to take my parents seriously when they insisted I get married. I thought there might just be something to be said for the simple life. And that’s when I met my ex-husband.”
“Ah, yes of course. The first husbands and wives are the worst, aren’t they? I swear, if our society hadn’t drummed the overarching importance of marriage into our heads from the time we could walk, we’d never have gotten married that young.”
“Nope. Might have lived in with a few people at best, just to test the waters. But I’m not that brave, I think. To not care about my parents’ approval. The smile I saw on my neighbours’ faces when I told them I was getting married! It was like being accepted into the grown-ups club, you know. Society does have its uses.”
“So what happened there? Why is he your ex-husband?”
She hesitated. Some wounds were best left unexposed to harsh reactions, she had always thought.
“Only if you want to,” he said gently, compassion radiating from his eyes.
“Or we could just order another round and talk about my inability to do a deadlift in the gym?”, Karan spoke again, trying to change the subject.
“I think one more glass of wine would be awesome,” she smiled as she said this, grateful to him for not pushing for more answers.
As they waited for their drinks, they spoke of inconsequential matters. They talked about how they both had eclectic tastes in music, ranging from ghazals to blatantly cringe-worthy Bollywood music they both secretly downloaded onto their phones. Which songs had played when they used to go out for drives with their friends during late summer evenings, the catastrophes that had happened on vacations to Goa. They drained their glasses repeatedly and ordered more. They were both tipsy and easy with each other.
They looked around after hours to see that the cafe had been slowly emptying, with the servers running around and shutting the bar. They laughed and settled their bill. Still smiling, they stumbled out of Town House to find a nearly deserted Khan Market. Soft golden lights spilling onto the cobblestones, reflecting off closed shutters while a lone busker plucked the strings of his guitar.
Karan took her hand and tugged her towards the music and said, “I always stop to listen to the street musicians. It’s so brave, don’t you think, to come out here and perform without expectation of a receptive audience for hours on end? Sometimes, I think they just sing for themselves, and audiences are just collateral damage. I know I would have spent hours just singing for myself if I had the voice for it. It’s amazing.”
She smiled at him, those sticky parts inside her mind resolving themselves into a very concrete answer –she liked him.
“So, did I pass the test?,” he asked her teasingly, taking her hand as they walked towards her car.
“You passed the test ten years ago when we dated back in school.”
“Hahaha, I did, didn’t I? It’s nice to see we’re still the same people, albeit smarter and more forgiving after weathering our own storms.”
She saw, not the pot-holed road up ahead of her, but a snapshot of memories pieced together by her mind for this very moment. Her first kiss in the stairwell of their school, Karan holding her hand under the knobbly wooden desks in class and her friends teasing her about falling for a sardar.
“Yes. It’s nice,” she said and with one arm around his waist, walked into a brand new and yet old relationship with her first love.
Mehar Luthra is a 28-year-old coffeeholic currently living in the always-rainy town of Galway, Ireland. Not nearly as anxious anymore. Survives on pancakes and will work for Nutella.
Illustrations: Pariplab Chakraborty